Walk Across Lake Winnebago: the history of a strange but social event

It all started with one woman leaving her purse at a bar… and deciding to take an unusual route toward getting it back. It led to, year after year, lots of people telling participants “you are nuts.” But last year, over 600 people decided to join in – to get up, head to a frozen lake in mid-February, and spend hours walking across it!

2011 the big year

I had the chance to talk with Stacy and Jordan Frakes about the history of this new tradition. In 2003, Stacy Frakes lived on the west shore of Lake Winnebago. Like many others who lived on the lake, she was used to a local culture where socializing often revolved around the lake; visiting bars on the lakeshore, boating, fishing. And during winter, snowmobiling, and driving on the lake – odd as that may seem to people in other parts of the country, it is a regular part of the culture here. (Particularly on Winnebago, where sturgeon-spearing season is a winter highlight).

One Saturday night, she left her purse behind at Gobblers Knob in Stockbridge… across the lake from where she lived. For whatever strange reason, she decided to get it back by walking across on that beautiful Sunday morning, and invited her friends Connie Schultz and Jamie Caldwell to join her. (And for whatever strange reason, the three of them decided to actually decided to go through with the plan!) ‘We’re comin’ over for a Bloody Mary,’ she told the bar… and then the three went on over.

And this started a tradition. Now, Lake Winnebago gets heavily used in the winter. Trucks created informal paths across parts of the lake, and some people plowed paths to their shanties on the ice, so the ladies had trails partially blazed for them, even in the early years.

For a few years, just the three of them walked. Then Stacy talked her daughter Jordan into joining. By 2007, around 50 people took part – mostly family and friends, mostly women. (Area men were often participating in other outdoor activities instead, like fishing.) Many people kept saying ‘you’re nuts, why don’t you just drive over’… but over time, some of those people joined the walk 😉

Given the neighborly culture, local private organizations found their ways, over the years, to join in the fun as well. Paynes Point Hook & Spear Fishing Club, used to plowing routes on the lake for fishers, now maintains the ice-road for the walkers. Each year, new friends, neighbors and local businesses try to find a way to join and support the event, including supporting social refreshment stops on the way across the lake.

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Representatives of Paynes Point Hook & Spear Fishing Club plowing a road on the ice.

As one might imagine, an event premised on walking an extended distance, over what is essentially a level field, in the middle of February, can face challenges due to the weather.

2008 the Blizzard year

Walking through a blizzard in 2008

In 2008, a blizzard struck. Walkers had to rely on GPS and walkie-talkies to stay on track. The group wandered off course somewhat, which was frightening for some.

2009 slushy warm year

Slush in 2009

While that problem came from too much winter weather, too little winter weather can create a different set of problems. In 2012 and 2013, no walk was held – the ice wasn’t thick enough. (People still got together, though – why miss a chance to be social!) In 2009, the ice was thick enough… but with temperatures above 40 degrees, walkers had to trudge through slush… and melted water on top of the ice! At points, the water came all the way to walkers’ knees. (Understandably, some were unsettled by this, and wondering – wait, does that mean the lake was open? But for people used to living on the lake, and gauging the reliability of ice, they could assess the fact that this was simply a layer of melted snow on top of a solid layer of ice.)

One year, neighbor Karl Engling decided to have a ‘Margaritaville’ stand on the walk. But, given the weather, the drinks could freeze in straws. ‘We need warm drinks,’ they concluded. So since then, Engling’s ‘Apple Pie Ville’ has provided warm shots for people midway across the lake (or on the shore, during the years no walk was held). Others have joined in at other spots, with their own drink offerings.

Walkers suggested that if they were going to have an audience involved in such an activity, why not use it to raise $ for a cause? (Or, more light-heartedly, ‘we wanna do this dumb thing for them’ 😉 Since Frakes was on the board of the Neenah Animal Shelter, that was a natural choice as a cause to support. So from that point on, the Walk Across Lake Winnebago became a charity event as well, raising over $6000 in 2014 for the Neenah Animal Shelter and for Menasha’s K9 Unit.

At the time of the first walk, Frakes had never heard of anyone else walking across the lake (although she later heard from someone who had done so). Drive, snowmobile, sure – but walk? People thought they “were absolutely nuts.” But take a few people who are nuts… have them apply some gentle peer pressure to others, perhaps via tagging people on Facebook… and whaddya know, more join.

And, this being Wisconsin, if you have an event where people can have a Bloody Mary before they start, supporters set up stands with drinks available along the way, and you have people bringing sleds to haul beer on; well, it becomes another reason to drink and be social (think of the spirit of tailgating, but with exercise added… ) The Walk became something to look forward to in February, a chance for area people to come together.

And you end up with hundreds of people are being nuts together! It may be cold, it may be February, it may be strange – but they have a good time doing it, and I had a good time joining in last year (see https://milwaukeesnow.com/2014/02/03/walk-across-lake-winnebago-impressions-from-my-first-time-crossing-the-ice-2/) I hope you can join us if you’re in the area; if not, I hope you can find your own creative way to find outdoors fun this winter.

(See also http://www.walkacrosslakewinnebago.com/photos.html for a look at photos from past years.)

Note: all photographs in this post courtesy of and copyright Jordan Frakes.

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Walking at Night during Winter, part 2: between Darkness and Lights

The darkness is one of the great challenges many face in winter. It can lead to depression and danger. But it also has often been pointed to as a chance for reflection, including a time for spiritual awareness. As with most aspects of winter, we can find things to appreciate about winter weather during the darkness, if we go and look for them. We can experience the dark, adjust to walking without being able to see much – and we can make use of the lights around us. (For my reflections on walking when the moon is fuller, see “Walking at Night during Winter, part 1: Ground Illumination.”)

Lightposts at night in winter almost always make me think of the moment just through the wardrobe into Narnia. I get a bit of a magical feeling; plus the pleasure of being temporarily in a circle of light. Light in the distance can, at any season on a night walk, feel a bit like will o’ wisps (and I can see why people in earlier eras came up with creative stories to explain little flickers that remained outside of full sensory awareness…). One can’t quite be sure what the source of that light in the distance is, or what it is luring you on to…

(A separate post could be written on the Christmas decoration lights we put out – not so piercing, cute little spots of light. And such lights are linked closely to our experience of holidays, so we tend to associate them with nostalgia and memories of such joys.)

On the other hand, once one’s eyes adjust to night’s level of light, these artificial lights can feel piercing, intruding. When snow is falling, the snow extends artificial light’s physicality in the air; it becomes a cloud, not just a beam.

Falling snow also muffles artificial light; it no longer extends quite as far – it is held back to a certain zone, and then the falling snow beyond remains unilluminated. Light that once shot out, flying far across our cities, is now limited. I appreciate snow placing some temporary limits on the human ability to transform the landscape, letting me see more of nature’s power to shape.

 

Out in middle of a snowy field, in the mostly-dark… I find something calming about that. This is as isolated as one can feel in a city, perhaps? On a clear night, one can see the stars above. (On the other hand, when the moon is bright, it lights the landscape more than it does during any other season.)

On a dark night, there is little I can see near me. I am distanced, during heavy snow, by the fact that it will take me longer to travel to what I can see. The cold feels like it spaces me further; I am set apart, some presence holds me away from what I see. I am not quite part of this landscape. But I can go out and be amidst it.

I step, step through a snowy field in a local park. Do I watch my shoes? No, I don’t really have to. I am apart, walking across a field. Movement through snow is difficult enough that small spaces provide more of an exercise, experience, perhaps even adventure. I remember to look around, see what I can. Some areas are lit by lamps – here I can really look at snow, sometimes clean sheets of it.

Then I move back to the dark, where I can barely make out dimly-lit snow. I have pleasant surprise of coming upon drift patterns that had been hidden. I knew basically what would be there, but I had to wait to find out in more detail. The adventure of not quite not knowing what would come up next.

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Walking at Night during Winter, part 1: Ground Illumination

Winter is my favorite season during which to look at the ground floor at night. With the snow out, there’s a layer of something light, a layer of contrast. I find the snow calming; and it provides contrasts to what is above it, trees and more.

When the moon is near full, there’s a fair amount of illumination. It is more delightful when snow is on branches, but there’s some luminosity to enjoy whenever there’s snow on the ground. A great opportunity to experience the winter glow. Or, to spend time looking out your window, not just into the normal dark, but now into contrasts you can watch all night.

While plenty of beauty exists during other seasons, it is hard to see that beauty at night, when there’s not enough light to help us see the leaves and other aspects of nature. But snow reflects light. So there is more we can see. And this brightness makes me feel warm emotionally… if not in terms of body temperature 😉

 

[Note: will I have pictures to help you see what I see? Well, one, but my camera can’t come up with any reasonable representation of the low-light views. I think to some extent, it remains not quite capable of capture on film. This is one of those winter experiences that – in a world relying more and more on watching video – you have to be a part of in order to really appreciate it.]

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When I get outside, at first, I have a sense of moving into darkness. Being in a lit house or car means relying on bright artificial light; as one drives, natural areas just look like spots of darkness, because one’s eyes are adjusted to watch the brightly-lit areas. It takes a little while, but not long, to adjust, after one starts walking. Then I have a kind of moment of discovery – whoa, look how much I can see here! – and a kind of pride and appreciation for the light. Even in a forest at night, there’s more light than one would expect beforehand. With snow to help distinguish trees from the ground, one feels surprisingly comfortable finding a way. One can enjoy the sparkling of snow hit by moonlight, and more.

 

In a local nature center, there’s a cleared path, with some snow on it, and trees are cut back from the side of the path. So I can easily see where I’m to go, since there is a stretch of white openness to follow. (In fact, it may be easier to notice the path at night; the shades of forest blend to together into darkness, while the cleared area sticks out.) Particularly since my attention is drawn down, both to watch my footing on any icy path, and because that is where I can see. Looking straight out at eye level, there is darkness, since the presence of trees in the forest thickens into something one cannot see into. Looking down, one can see the forest floor extend for a certain distance – and nearby, there are bright spots.

 

In a field, I sit down. With my face close to the ground, I can see more tiny reflective sparkles. Around me, the snow does not glow – but I am clearly amidst a sweep of land that can be seen, surrounded by a darkness into which my vision cannot penetrate.

The border appears sharp from a distance, particularly because it feels as if everything I can see along a horizontal axis is white, while everything along the vertical axis is dark. But closer up, there is no easy border. On the snow, the shadows of trees reach out, to where I can walk over them. Looking up, the trees are hard-dark against a dark-grey sky, but the branch patterns are more easily visible in these shadows on the snow. On the other side, the forest floor sets itself apart in a way it normally doesn’t, as a pallid sheet.

 

Yes, when I walk in the dark, I feel anxious about who (not which animals) might be lurking in darkness. A kind of fear that is primal, with roots in prehistory and throughout human history. So if you’re thinking of going out – and there are plenty of park hours remember to be safe, and preferably go with

 

The brightness of snow at night has been used to good effect by pop culture – scenes of sleighs at night, George Bailey running through downtown Bedford Falls, the “Let it go” sequence in “Frozen,” and more.

 

I’m not quite sure how to best describe the reflectiveness of snow at night. It is not quite a glow, or luminescent, or glistening. (I’m still working on the best word to choose…) More a dull… presence of white, which doesn’t really extend beyond the snow itself. The light isn’t that powerful – but the contrasts it sets up are!

This is not the bright snow of the day, which has its own pleasures. Nor is it like a dim day, where the sky is grayish, and the snow feels that way too, and they blur together more. There is a sharpness to a clear night under a full moon. The trees lose the color they have during the day – beyond the nearby, they become shadows and dimness. There is little to see in distance in forest, or in air around you, or in sky. Amidst that, something sticks out: the snow may be dim, but it is starkly white. The shadows cast by the moon cut boldly across this. So the observable world becomes narrowed in focus – the shadows, and the dim white snow.

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Striking Contrasts of Snow in Flooded Wetland: Photo Essay

Today presented an unusual treat. Previous snow cover had melted, followed by some big rainstorms, meaning that in the wetland near me, water covered much of the ground.

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Last night, we got one of the best snows to appreciate afterwards – snow that sticks to trees. Today, the weather was cold enough that the snow didn’t melt quickly. Add that up, and there’s a rare opportunity: to see snow-covered branches and fallen logs, plus snow-sprayed tree trunks – above a wetland which provided a striking contrast as the ‘floor.’ No layer of white below the trees – instead, a reflective, bluish surface. This is a pretty rare combination.

DSC07064This provided a nice means of setting off the whiteness against a backdrop of other colors, to help the snow stick out more.

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The animals I saw out seemed to have adapted to this world of snowy islands. See below for more of a sense of the ‘islandness’ of the scene.

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Striking angles and contrasts: light and dark, image and reflection. Strong lines of white, with shorter branch lines, amidst a backdrop of water. (With occasional spots of the off-yellowish-green pockmarked ice that reminds me of the Dead Marshes in Lord of the Rings… those I stayed away from.)

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DSC07095As a snow-lover, I recognize that we get, on average, around 2 inches, and 2 measurable snowfalls, per April; but I also know that such snows normally melt quickly. It was fun to have the chance to check this out while it lasts! Hope you get to enjoy the rare pleasures this season of transition provides… before weather changes and they are gone…

My last image shows how looking up is also a pleasure; branches weighed down = snow suspended in mid-air for our viewing pleasure 🙂

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De-wintering: enjoying seasonal transition by soaking in joys of melt and ice

Late March where I am, this year, means one can experience this combination: 1. Spring-like weather warm enough that I don’t need bulky winter clothing anymore, plenty of sunshine, and birdsong 2. a winter-like woods where the floor is mostly covered with snow 3. the sound of rushing water (in a park which doesn’t have any rivers or streams normally). Lovely that I can experience all that at the same place and time!

I’m not quite sure what to call this time of year. Most of the snow is gone, and temps are mostly easily above freezing, so it doesn’t feel like Winter. I’d call it Spring or Early Spring, but others might not think that qualifies either; little new plant growth yet. But the birds are active, we’re in the late stages of a long melt; perhaps we could call this ‘de-wintering?’ The period of uncovering, when the snow goes away and we can again see what it covered (… plus what was added to those places during the winter; the refuse left behind from piles is a not-so-appealing, and human-created, part of the uncovering…)

The paths were mostly ice, but usually with a mushy layer on top that provided a decent grip, if I walked carefully. My steps were fairly noisy: crunchy, ringing with an occasional high-pitch, but also thudding as they skidded, rolling. (I recommend boots with good traction for such conditions.) At times, the ice would softly crack, and shift down an inch or so; in one area, I could step and squish out water, which entertainingly slid out of from underneath the spots I stepped in 🙂

The forest floor was mostly covered in snow, but most objects above no longer had snow on them. Plus, near trees and in some other spots (in patterns that were erratic), I could see piles of leaves. So this was a landscape in white, grey (shadows) – and lots of shades of tan and brown. (Plus just a touch of dark red.) Such woods – which of course once covered some of the land where cities and towns now reside – demonstrate to us what snow-melt patterns might have been like in our areas before we removed the trees (and changed climate patterns, of course).

Perhaps the most striking feature was the melt patterns. Little streams of water rushing down the slope sometimes appeared underneath the snow cover – and at other times remained under. It looked as if the tiny streams had eroded channels, smoothly, down several inches or more (I don’t know if that’s what actually happened, but that’s how it looked). Some of those had turned into ‘dried-up stream beds,’ as channels shifted; a place where water once pooled up might now be dry. (Well, dry except for the frozen water bordering it.) This is a landscape constantly shifting and transforming.

On a smaller scale, I continually found it amusing to see leaves and branches sunken into the ice. Apparently they concentrated heat in such a manner that melting took place underneath them, leading to a path spotted with leaves a little below the surface. (Along with a little brown-tinted water around them, often. I’m someone who loves the whiteness of snow; those more open to appreciating yellow and tan snow might find this more appealing than I did 😉

In other areas, there were small-scale regular patterns that were striking to observe (and difficult to appreciate on film, alas) which looked like nothing so much as slight ripples on a pond, frozen in place. A nice case where the visual metaphor reminds us of what the substance is: water!

When I stopped to take note of the patterns of the ice, I saw that they were fairly striking, too. The crystalline patterns of the melting and refreezing lead to a lot of diversity in what’s on the path. A lot of frozen particles catching light from a variety of angles! This, indeed, is something one can see in many places at this time of year. Patterns develop where mini-pillars, like tiny blocks piled up, form, and can be briefly seen. (At times, I even find this appealing in the blackened piles of snow around parking lots… but I admit I can’t hold that appreciation for too long.)

Lake Winnebago looked wilder today than it has for much of the winter. The shanties, the cars were no longer present out there; it no longer looked like an area that humans had staked out roads to make use of. (I did see and hear one vehicle, an ATV I think, heading across.) And I think it *is* wilder at this time of year than at others, in a sense. Americans like to define and control nature (particularly dramatically in the case of wetlands). But this could not be fixed as ‘ice’ that one could drive on, or ‘water’ than one could boat on. It was not securely one or the other. The tracks of snowmobiles, the roads on the snow, were only barely visible at this point; as the snow melted, tracks faded. Those signs of human management of the ice made sense when the ice was more solid, but (with appropriate symbolism) have been lost as the ice returns to looking more like a wilderness that humans must think carefully about how to use (or avoid until it is safer).

The whole experience reminded me a bit of the time I’ve spent in the summer visiting glacier ice; the mix of warmth, snowpack, and melt-rivers. It was amusing here in Wisconsin (and perhaps a little dangerous, I admit) to be walking above flowing water (usually, on ice less than a foot above the surface). The remnants of snow in most areas might be decisively human-shaped (the dark piles around parking lots). But one can head to the woods to see natural elements at play, melting and flowing in a series of patterns that change quickly. Streams, trickles, snow, ice – where these are is in constant change, in what might be the period of the year with the least stability and the most variety. See what it has to offer today!

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My thoughts on winter 2014; snow that stays around

As we exit the three coldest-average-months of the year (or ‘meteorological winter’), I will begin to wind down my promotion of winter appreciation for the season. Now seems like a good time to reflect back on what I have observed during this winter, and what this winter has meant to me.

I launched my project in December 2011, so it was rough to have so little snow during the first year of my project! Remember that in 2012, Milwaukee set a record for its longest stretch of days *without* snow cover, so our current streak of almost 3 months with snow cover has not quite balanced that out. The last two winters have been ones with more to offer a snow-lover; it had been a while since I’d seen a winter where as much snow was left around as last year’s, and the colder temps this year have limited melting even more.

For me, it has been nice again to have snow stick around! I’d gotten used to snow coming… and then much of it going soon, melting away. I prefer the rhythms of a winter where snow sticks for weeks. (And I think many others share this sense – if you’re going to have to deal with driving in the snow, plowing, shoveling, etc, why not have more of a payoff a week later than some greyish piles on the side of the road?)

Despite the winter drama, this doesn’t feel to me like a winter where we get big blizzards; or if we’ve had them, I haven’t been able to get out during most of them. Instead, we’ve had smaller storms, but on a regular basis. And more notably, the snow has only melted a little, so that it stays in place – indeed, it keeps building.

Piles we push up grow; and we can watch the snowline slowly rise on trees. I have few places at present with which I have the kind of intimate familiarity that I truly can tell how high it is rising, so for me it has mostly looked roughly the same. A soccer goal in a nearby park looks shorter and shorter; the snow rises higher along the walls of my workplace. Benches get more buried. But overall, I’ve found depth a hard thing to gauge visually. Perhaps what is more noticeable are certain absences; certain rolls in the landscape get buried, replaced by patterns of snowdrift – and unless we know the land intimately, it is hard to remember what is covered. On the other hand, when I try to walk in it, I definitely can fall further as the season goes on 😉

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So it is nice to have horizontals, especially fallen trees, so can get sense of how much snow has fallen. I can see how much snow has piled up on a log lying sideways, and then remember how much snow lies over the rest of the ground.

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I have realized this year that my impressions about winter were shaped by winters with snow-and-melt cycles; and I need to recalibrate some of my perspectives. For instance, I had assigned snowstorms a larger role in ‘where snow appears’ than makes sense in colder winters. I get excited to see snow layered on branches, which might be particularly memorable for a day or so after a dozen snowfalls or so. But that’s only a relatively small part of what snow is during a colder winter. When the snow doesn’t melt soon afterwards, it means that a larger % of snow-as-experienced is snow that sits on fields and in piles, week after week, fairly similar.

Since the places it sits are fields and piles, persistent snow tends to be mostly fairly close to the ground. Landscapes without architecture tend to feel like cream-layered places on the ground and near it; snow piles up on low-to-ground on objects, it sticks around longer on broader, low branches. (I can see why might be a season more appreciated by children; since they are lower to the ground, they are more likely to feel surrounded by snow.) Meanwhile, dark trees dominate one’s view above a few feet (often with a backdrop of snow in the distance). Trees can blur into darkness; or, on sunny days, stick out as dramatic contrast to the snow, in this season of chiaroscuro.

Also, in warm winters I had gotten used to seeing more change day to day, either from snowfall or melt (including how snowfields grow pitted). These changes happen more subtly when deep freeze seems to lock more snow in place. Some of them are harder for us to observe this year; when water off the shore of Lake Michigan stays frozen for dozens of yards into the lake, we can’t observe the daily changes on the shore I saw in past years. Nuanced changes in snow patterns can be hard to see, particularly on sunny days when the glare off the snow is bright. New snowfall isn’t as distinctive when it falls on top of a good layer of snow; it mostly just reinforces the existing view.

Instead, I’m taking time to reflect on what it means to me to have, day after day, snow out my window to observe. To go to bed, leaving my window open so I can see that glow of white on the ground. To wake up and have bright sun and snow shining for me. A presence of unbroken snow in a nearby park to soothe me; a snowy field that gets periodically re-swept by new snow and by breezy days. And I knew that it would not melt, that I could return to it for consolation and good cheer day after day.

I try to think of how to describe it. I think of the ‘warmth’ it provides to an otherwise darker landscape. It does that visually, but snow is cold, so that doesn’t sound quite right. I’ll keep working on my metaphors.

The darkness is a gift of winter; while we rely so much on sight, being reminded of what we cannot see (see physically, and intellectually as well) is also important. A season when we use the dark is helpful for the mind’s palate, and can remind us to look up in the sky and ponder our place in the universe. In Wisconsin, this darkness sometimes comes paired with another gift; snow on the floor to match the dark in the woods and sky. Darkness, yes – but also striking contrasts, a hazy hopeful light that remains on the landscape’s floor at night, and more.

It has been a while since I’ve had a winter like this. I’d forgotten what it was like. I have enjoyed the chance to see what it has to offer! And I will look forward to seeing what the other seasons have to offer, each in their turn.

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Roundup of writing about winter 2013-4

As we enter late winter, I thought now might be a good time to share some of my favorite essays about appreciating the season which were published this winter.

Elegant explanation of an interesting project that connects past experiences of winter in a place to present visitors of place: http://grist.org/climate-energy/blast-from-the-past-audio-project-reminds-us-that-times-and-temps-are-changing/

A piece that focuses attention on trees, and what they offer to urban scenery during the winter (specifically about elms in New York City, but you can consider other examples closer to home). http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/opinion/sunday/in-the-treetops-a-winter-gift.html?_r=1

A nice photo-based piece on ice caves in the Apostle Islands: http://thecookerymaven.com/2014/01/our-morning-at-the-ice-caves/ Another piece demonstrates all the wonder and fun people experienced while visiting the caves: http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2014/02/a-frozen-walk-to-island-ice-caves/100682

An author writing a story, one word at a time, each word imprinted in a different snow scene: http://instagram.com/snowshelleyjackson#

A math professor’s reflections: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012/12/the-wondrous-mathematics-of-winter-and-snow.html

Milwaukee photographer and writer Eddee Daniel’s reflections on one day’s experiences skiing in Milwaukee: http://urbanwilderness-eddee.blogspot.com/2014/02/cross-country-in-heart-of-city.html

And I’ll also share my piece about an unusual Wisconsin winter tradition: https://milwaukeesnow.com/2014/02/03/walk-across-lake-winnebago-impressions-from-my-first-time-crossing-the-ice-2/

And a news piece with some perspective on the season that will seem surprising to most of us in Wisconsin: http://knowmore.washingtonpost.com/2014/02/20/last-month-was-one-of-the-warmest-januaries-ever-no-really/

I am happy to hear other recommendations for articles that help us appreciate the kind of winters we have in Wisconsin. (As well as for articles on appreciating Wisconsin winters during other seasons, which I can share through my list at http://wisconsinnatureart.wordpress.com/reading-recommendations/ ) I may update this post at the end of winter; and I think I will try to do this in future winters as well. Here’s to enjoying what every season has to offer, while that season is around…

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Watching the snow: images of beauty I find in shadow patterns

Perhaps the leading theme of my snow photographs is the patterns I try to capture. What shadows are trees casting? There are so many different arrangements of branches, snow drifts, brush, and other things that keep recreating new patterns to find with each new day.

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I will walk along, and watch for what catches my eye; where I see lines drawn out. What little wonders are there to see? Scenes can be enjoyed in the moment – they can be captured in pictures. On another day, perhaps the snow would’ve been higher, the plants bent differently… but on the day I took the previous picture, I found this lovely balance of rounded brown plants and rounded shadows; two sets of lines with the same source, but with differences that make this a striking ‘mirroring.’

There are plenty of nooks and niches where one can find scenes like the one below:

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How does the angle of the sun, and the drifting of the snow, bend shadows? How do they cross each other, how does a web develop? How does a mixture of faint and deep shadows develop? This day was one of the many bright sunny winter days – a good time to watch sunlight sparkle off the snow! (That sparkling I do not believe can ever fully be captured on film – it needs to be enjoyed in the moment.

On some days, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of patterns left behind:

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Let us hope we all can leave a legacy of tracks as rhythmic and elegant as these 🙂

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To find the most patterns… head off into the woods. You can watch how paths and tracks cross them; or you can capture images of fresh snow. With the sun at the right angle, patterns can stretch on and on… (on the edge of a frozen lake, on and on without interruption). There’s a surprising amount of shading here. And more variety than one might realize; the snow drifts, but it also curves to follow what is underneath, to an extent.

On the day I took that last photo, I was entertained to see the changes in shadow patterns as the sun moved across the sky. At first, I focused on the white of snow, while watching to see which marks the trees lay down. As the sun went down in the sky, shadows appeared to grow longer. But even moreso, the area of shadow grew; it felt blockier. Eventually, the snow was mostly shadowed; at that point, the rays of white were what stuck out.

This winter’s continued cold means that our snow cover has lasted. How much longer it will last, we don’t know. It is the snow, after all, that creates these sharp contrasts of white and shadow, which we would not see in any other season. So I hope you get out soon and take a look for the patterns you can find!

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Walk Across Lake Winnebago: impressions from my first time crossing the ice

This is one of the more unusual Wisconsin winter activities I have heard of. Hundreds of people covering the width of Lake Winnebago by walking across it? I was excited to try this out the year I heard about it… but unfortunately, our stretch of recent mild winters meant that the walk had to be called off the past two years. This year, I got my chance! So my ladyfriend and I headed out.

The Walk Across Lake Winnebago began with a bus ride to take us to the opposite side of the lake. This was a bus full of adults, and so partying was key to the atmosphere, and the discussion.

These were people who came ready for a winter event. People were dressed warmly; properly prepared. Throughout the event, I did not hear anyone complain about being cold. What a relief for me, after all the complaints the media and casual conversation make about how intimidating and unpleasant they find winter, to be around plenty of people ready to go out into winter like it’s no big deal!

And this was no event for the hard-core only. Yes, it involved walking eight miles, and doing so while wrapped up in winter clothes. But this was no race, it did not involve testing one’s extreme abilities. It was a lot of average people ready to have a nice walk outdoors… in the middle of winter. For 2-3 hours. In temperatures around 10 degrees. On a snowy path across a frozen lake.

When the bus arrived on the eastern side, we then had to walk (perhaps a mile?) from our drop-off point to the lake itself. I was a little nervous about the walk at this point, since the road we walked on was fairly slushy and slippery. I did appreciate this portion from a landscape-encounter perspective: this is a lake which is bordered by cliffs on one side, so it felt appropriate to begin by walking down a hill to get to the lake.

The walk over the lake itself proved smoother. The path was not slushy. There was a plowed road across, two lanes wide, easy to walk on. Actually, these seemed to be roughly ideal walking-across-lake-conditions; enough snow for traction (rarely did I see exposed ice), since walking on the ice itself would have been trickier.DSC06807

Since the road was plowed, there were borders (1-2 feet high, often) on each side. (Until the last mile or so, which did not follow the main road across the lake, and thus was less level, and narrower.) So the route felt prepared, and somewhat contained. I stepped off to the side a few times to soak in the feeling of the frozen lake a bit more, and sat on the side too. I don’t recall if I saw anyone else doing that.

As far as ‘knowing nature through labor’: I now know the width of lake via my own effort! It gives me some pride, and greater awareness of my area, to know the size of this lake through my effort.

This was longest distance I’ve ever walked while being able to see the whole distance most of the way, shore to shore. As you might image – or have experienced from canoeing or swimming – the size of the shores changed *slowly,* progress takes effort. I said “most” of the time: at times, snow would block out shores… so I just knew I had to walk further than I could see!

I have mentioned the road, and we got plenty of glimpses of how, when the lake is frozen enough, it is used for transportation. I have some experience of this from the lake my grandparents lived on, but not on such a large scale. We certainly did not feel isolated out on the lake. (My pictures are somewhat misleading, in part because I wanted to capture the depth, not the groups of walkers closest to us; with a steady stream of walkers, we always felt amidst company.) Along with the road, there was a constant set of tracks we could see on both sides of us. There were many ice-fishing shanties to see, grouped primarily in a few locations. Vehicles used the road, too; several dozen trucks passed us.

Also, there was a line of old Christmas trees marking a route, perhaps fifty yards from the road itself. For the unfamiliar, sticking such trees on the lake, at regular distances, provides a convenient way for drivers to identify the path across a lake (particularly when it covers such a distance).

Along with that, there were the social spots – these are Wisconsinites in winter, after all! People used to ice-fishing and Lambeau Field are going to have themselves a good time on a winter walk, too! (See https://milwaukeesnow.com/2014/01/27/culture-of-cold-at-packer-games-lambeau-fans-and-cold-weather/ for related reflections of mine.) People, including at least one biker, hauled beers on sleds; apple pie shots; and beer and brats waiting for us when we crossed the lake! This felt very much in the tailgating tradition. There were, if I recall correctly, and three spots where people gathered and hung out a bit (or waited in line for restrooms, at least), highlighted by the halfway point, where dozens of people hung out.

It was a friendly group. One person saw me resting, asked if I was ok, and offered me some water (should’ve come prepared…) I appreciated that generosity, as well as the casual, friendly tone of other walkers who I heard from. People weren’t in much of a rush, so they could talk on their way.

Thinking about it, participants put in an impressive effort, especially for such an unusual thing. We know the kind of credit we assign to, say, marathoners, or fun run participants. But for this? People spending 2-3 hours constantly on their feet, light exercise, often with fairly weighty clothes. And while this wasn’t bitterly cold, it was cold – my cheeks did get pretty chilled at points, and I was glad that I came dressed warm. How many other people walk – not drive, snowmobile, canoe, sail, snowshoe, etc – across such a distance in winter?

What moved me the most were some magic moments near the middle when snow started falling at a decent rate… and the shorelines disappeared! I stopped to look around, to soak it in. I started from the shore, and now here I was, able to see snow-flats around me, snow falling near me, snow-fuzziness in the distance. But for all I could see there, there was no world around me except for that snow 🙂 I let my mind roam a little. (If I get the chance again, I’ll wonder longer…)

This was an encounter with the wildness of winter. The chance to look off into the distance, see the sky aflight and abuzz, and feel stirrings of hope that something wonderful exists beyond… and knowing in my heart that something wonderful *does* exist there, the opportunity to be surrounded by such a globe of whirling snow. (And I was not alone in doing so, hundreds of people chose to immerse themselves.)

This is a moment I have longed for. I have had related moments on Milwaukee lakeshore, when all I could see was the nearby forest and some of the lake ice. But this moment felt further out. Here, I could kind of imagine that I was off on some epic journey, to who knows where… I was in the midst of a step into a temporarily unknowable (if not trackless) world. I cast about for an epic to match this with in my mind. (I did get a better sense of the battlefield Alexander Nevsky managed…) And yet, there was a steady stream of people ahead of me and behind me, sharing the trek, so it wasn’t so lonely-heroic. (Plus, if I looked in the right directions, I could see a few ice shanties and automobiles in the distance.)

So thanks to the organizers for giving me the change to feel that magic in the middle of the lake – and to do so in the midst of my own effort, and to do so safely. And thanks to the participants for being willing to take the time and effort to have a good time in the middle of winter… in the middle of a lake!DSC06825

[Note: I later wrote a piece you can check out on the history of the Walk,]

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Value of patience during Winter

Winter is a season that rewards patience. Those who are impatient are more likely to get frustrated – and less likely to appreciate what the season has to offer.

What are some of the situations in which patience is a winter virtue?

So you budget enough time to clean your car off, and to get it running.

So you have enough time to get places, and do not have worry about rushing. (Dangerous driving conditions are not a good time to feel compelled to rush.)

So you have enough time to get dressed; and to take off that warm clothing when you get to your destination. (This is also an issue for summer heat, with swimsuits and sunscreen, don’t forget. But most people don’t seem to see *that* as as much of a hassle, I think?)

So you have time to strap on skis and snowshoes, before heading out to enjoy the snow.

So you don’t get annoyed at winter. If carving out a few extra minutes to deal with these issues would have allowed you to keep a more even tone, remember to revise your schedule. (With all the conveniences we have, technology that lets us avoid many of the more drastic measures people took to deal with winter in the past… the more minor adjustments we have to make do not seem like such a big deal to me.)

Perhaps most importantly: so you have time to appreciate winter. Find time for a walk. If you rush through the less pleasant parts of winter, your experience will focus on that. If you make sure to budget time so you can get out and play and observe, your winter perspective will include positive images and memories which you can draw on. Winter won’t provide its moments of beauty (or its moments to, say, build a snowperson) on a schedule, so you’ll need the patience to adapt to that. But I hope you will appreciate the benefits of being patient!

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